Lectio Liberatio - reading the bible with forgotten saints

“During the days of slavery the master’s minister would occasionally hold services for the slaves. Old man McGhee was so mean that he would not let a Negro minister preach to his slaves. Always the white minister used as his text something from Paul. At least three or four times a year he used as a text: ‘Slaves, be obedient to them that are your masters . . . as unto Christ.’ Then he would go on to show how it was God’s will that we were slaves and how, if we were good and happy slaves, God would bless us. I promised my Maker that if I ever learned to read and if freedom ever came, I would not read that part of the Bible.”

– Howard Thurman reminiscing on the teachings of his formerly enslaved grandmother

The bible is a perplexing book. The proof is in the thousands of denominations that exist based on divergent biblical interpretations. Though I grew up in black denominations that held a more fundamentalist approach to the bible, I remember observing my mom’s stubborn challenge of literalistic biblical interpretations. She’d strut into those Baptist and Holiness churches with her makeup done to the “T”, a badass pantsuit, and would dare someone to tell her that tithing was a requirement given by Jesus. Before I learned to parse Koine Greek and understand “cultural hermeneutics” in seminary, my mom embodied a biblical hermeneutics of suspicion and reading the bible through the lens of Jesus’ life and teachings. Like Howard Thurman’s enslaved grandmother’s perspective on Paul, I come from a long tradition of black women and mothers who refused the heretical and harmful biblicism of slaveholding, white imperialist Christianity that blindly masquerades as classical and orthodox theology. Our church has curated a method of biblical interpretation we call lectio liberatio. Lectio divina with a healing justice twist! It’s a mashup of the wisdom of ancient monastics and black liberation and folk spirituality through the framework of our church’s values. The biblical text is read aloud four times, pausing between readings for the community to reflect on and respond to the following questions:

  • BELONG - what is the conflict and/or change in the text? who/what in the text connects to the story of your family/community of origin?

  • BE BOLD - what policies and cultural norms is the text resisting? calling us to resist?  

  • BECOME - what vision of healing and liberation does the text call forth?

  • BE STILL - what is the text calling you to pay attention to in yourself to more fully support this resistance and vision?

As a church which is modeled after the revolutionary biblical imagination of the antebellum hush harbors and base Christian communities of the Global South, it has been vital for The Good Neighbor Movement to heal the relationship between our members and the bible. One of the most common wounds exposed as I engage unchurched and dechurched folks in Greensboro is the use of the bible to beat up on folks. For white folks in our church this has meant confessing that slaveholding, white imperialist biblical interpretation is their inheritance. For folks of color this has meant not giving up on the biblical imagination of our ancestors. What a journey of healing it has been for me to watch the tears and hear the energy of folks re-engaging the bible through Spirit-filled conversation. For a faith community reconstructing what it means to be church, the practice of lectio liberatio has put us on a journey to slowly re-center our lives on the sacred text as “a lamp to guide our feet and a light for our path” toward the liberation and healing of the world we pursue with Jesus and our neighbors (Ps. 119:105).